Off-road riding fans will enjoy this interview with Fátima Ropero from Spain who has ridden in her native Spain as well as various other countries like Portugal, Peru and Brazil. In this interview she talks about her path into motorcycling in spite of her conservative background, something that at least a few of us will identify with. [Rashmi Tambe, Editor]
Please introduce yourself. My name is Fátima. I have two university degrees and an MBA. In my professional life, I’ve worked as a lawyer and a financial auditor. I’ve also had several freelance jobs since college, one of which was as a legal translator. About a year ago I realized that this is something that I am passionate about so now I work as a full-time freelancer translator, reviser of legal and financial documents, and subtitling.
I think one of the things that define me the most is that ever since I was born I have never lived for more than four years in a row in the same place. One of the trickiest question for me is: “Where are you from?” because people expect a short answer and I feel like whatever my answer is it’s not accurate. I’m mostly from Spain but I have that peculiar syndrome of children who grow up in several countries and don’t identify with any of them. I guess I’m a Spanish person living abroad.
I believe that the easiest path is not always going to make you the happiest so I enjoy working hard to achieve my goals and tackling challenges in life.
Describe your path into motorcycling.
I was lucky enough to not have a brother and to be the daughter of a car, truck, train, boat, airplane, motorcycle and really just about anything-with-an-engine-on-it enthusiast. He got me a little 50 cc Yamaha trike when I was 7. I remember the other kids in the neighborhood were afraid to drive it, so they waited in line and I took them one by one for a little tour around the block. I loved taking my best friend up and down the curbs! Until one time we fell over and my mom saw what I was doing and thought that probably wasn’t the best idea!
My dad sold it when I was about 10 and we moved to the USA. We returned to Spain when I was 13. One of my dad´s friend left his Montesa Cota 349 in our garage for a few months and he let me rode it. So that’s the one I really learned how to ride with. On weekends my dad rode his Honda XL 600 and took me to the countryside around our house in Madrid. As a teenager I didn’t know it back then, but they are very happy and special memories. He challenged me and most importantly taught me to have no fear as long as you are focused and in control.
Then I was lucky again and met the most special man who also happened to love motorcycling. Throughout our twenties we rented enduro bikes every time we had the money and time for it. We still share the first bike we bought, a secondhand Hyosung Karion, and we currently both ride Dominators from the 90s. My next dream regarding motorcycling is to do rallies navigating by roadbook. My goal is to have a lighter enduro motorbike and some basic instruments for that.
Describe your current motorcycle. My current bike is a Honda NX 600 Dominator from 1992. I’ve had it for a year now and I enjoy riding her more and more. It was quite challenging at the beginning because of its weight and height and my lack of experience with big motorcycles. I am more confident because of her and love her 90s spirit.
Tell us a good story. Last January, I participated in the 2014 edition of the Budapest-Bamako rally in a 4×4, teaming with my husband André and our friend Miguel. We stopped at a waypoint in the middle of a desert in Mauritania. Another team of Hungarians had also stopped there. They were all staring at a Honda XR600 dirt bike that a two meter tall guy was riding the rally on. I said “nice bike” or something like that. They were drinking beer and were surprised that a woman said that, so they immediately started laughing and said “Wanna try it?” and stuff like that. I said – “OK” and got up on the bike. Their faces went from joking around to panic. When I said I had a motorcycle and that it was okay and André nodded, they sighed in relief and helped me kick start it. I took it for a fun little spin around the desert and from that moment on we were friends with them and even teamed up and did a couple of stages together.
This last April I also did something unusual for a woman: I rode a BMW 1200 GS, a Harley Davidson and a little scooter in an Islamic country where it is illegal for women to ride or drive. We were visiting and had the opportunity to try them out. My husband was riding them and so was my father. Why wouldn’t I? Just because I am a woman did not sound like a fair enough reason, so I did my best to “dress as a man” so as not to call anyone’s attention and took them for a spin!
As a Spanish woman, it was not always easy to say out loud that I loved riding bikes. Although my father introduced me to riding, I live in a somewhat sexist environment and my family simply never took me seriously when it came to riding. So it was not always easy to be confident in myself. Sometimes I even had to hear harsh things like “you are not going to be able to have kids until you find more feminine hobbies like dancing”. The hardest part as a woman was to be confident and follow my dreams. That is why I really appreciate this blog and what you are doing, because I find strength and confidence in the stories of those other women and feel like there are more women out there that understand me.
Do you have a motorcycling achievement that you take pride in? This January my husband André and I participated for the first time in an event where we rode the Lisbon-Dakar 2006 Rally tracks in Portugal. It was muddy but riding conditions were great. You needed an off-road GPS or road-book navigation and it was exhausting but lots of fun. When I was going up a bit steep rocky hill, I felt insecure and of course ended up on the ground. Fortunately I had knee pads and boots and just got a few bruises on my legs. I got up and was ready to go when I saw that the clutch lever was missing. I had never driven without that. We were in the middle of nowhere. And worst of all, André was already ahead and there were big dualsport motorbikes coming fast behind me, speeding up to go uphill on a narrow track with little visibility. I had to move or there would have been a serious accident.
Two other riders were kind enough to stop, call the riders’ attention, and quickly get my bike up the hill where André was. André pushed me to start the bike in second gear and another friend whom we had just met that day offered to come with us. He was going to miss the remaining 40 km or so to the finish line, we had no idea if we were going to solve the problem that Saturday evening, and then we still had another 120 km to the hotel where we were spending the night in southern Portugal. I don’t really know how I did it. I was just focused and went through mud, small rivers, and off-road ground without a clutch. I even remember enjoying it. Then we got to a paved road and we had to go to two or three towns before finding a mechanic who had a clutch lever. They literally escorted me as I could not easily stop at roundabouts, traffic lights or crossroads, and we finally got it fixed for €9. That is the great thing about these 90s motorcycles. They just need the basics and they keep on going. We got to the hotel a bit later than the rest of the riders that night, exhausted but truly happy. Other riders who had seen me when I fell were amazed that I had made it there and that I was ready to go the next day, which was a longer ride.
What I treasure the most about this experience is that motorcycles bring out the best in people in this kind of situation. I will always be grateful to those who helped me that day.
Have you done any long distance road trips? My favorite one was last year in Peru. André and I rented two Honda NX 400 Falcons in Arequipa and rode around the Colca canyon region, crossing the desert back to Majes Valley and Arequipa again. We had lots of adventures and especially enjoyed riding with a local guide off-road in those magnificent landscapes. We were living in Brazil at the time and didn’t have much experience with long distance road trips. We still don’t have that much experience today, but we have come a long way in this past year. (smiles)
We were in the process of getting our big motorcycle licenses and chose Peru because we had read somewhere on the internet that no specific license was required there. We could not wait to make our first motorcycling long road trip in South America. It was so good that later on during the trip we drove a pickup to the Cusco region. Instead of sightseeing temples and other touristic stuff we just rented another couple of motorcycles and rode around that region too. Crossing the Andes, the altitude, the roads with heavy truck traffic, the rainy season, snow… There is some stuff you have to be extra careful about but other than that I really loved Peru’s landscapes, its people and its food and cannot wait to visit again. This was also when we discovered the magic of traveling in a motorcycle and how it just does not compare to any other vehicle. People greet you differently when you’re on bikes. Since that road trip, we are hooked!
Have you made any close female friendships due to motorcycling? A few months ago, while stopped in a town in Morocco in that Budapest-Bamako rally, I passed by a woman riding a Yamaha XJV 500 solo and went to introduce myself and tell her how I admired what she was doing. Her name was Elizabeth and she was amazing. She was from The Netherlands and was riding to Ghana by herself. While crossing the Morocco-Mauritania border she fell on the sand right before our car in no man’s land. Her bike was heavy and not prepared to ride on the sand. So we helped her and became the kind of friends you might not ever see again or for a very long time, but that you admire and simply love for the rest of you life.
We ended up driving her motorcycle through most of Mauritania and we rode down to Senegal together. Each of us was eager to ride it, so we took turns!
Do you do maintenance and repairs on your bike? I’ve done small things like change the clutch cable, oil and oil filter or lights. Other than that I leave it to the pros. I am lucky to have a mechanic whom I trust. I really would like to learn how to do more stuff though.
Do you have any motorcycling heroes? I’ve admired Marc Coma since I was a teenager back in the 90s when he was winning Enduro races in Spain. He has come a long way since then. I also loved to watch Lampkin riding. And I have a teenage crush on Valentino Rossi, but that’s another story ;)
Are there any women riders who inspire you?
Of course! And every now and then I find new ones who inspire me for different reasons. There are professional ones, like Livia Lancelot. Watching her ride is an inspiration and makes me want to work harder. There are other women, like Paulina Ulloa from Chile, whose blog I was reading a few weeks ago. She had an opportunity in life and was not afraid to grab it and fully enjoy it.
And then there are other surprises like my little sister these past weeks. Out of the blue she said she wants to start riding bigger motorcycles (up until now she only had ridden scooters) and bravely just took the opportunity when me or my dad were around, went to a place near my house and just started riding with gears on my 125 Hyosung motorbike. No one in the family had ever bothered to ask her if she wanted to ride because we all just assumed she wasn’t into this kind of activities. And she learned quick too! She is an inspiration to me, showing that you only have to believe in yourself and not be afraid to try new things.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get into motorcycling? Be confident in yourself. Always try to keep an open mind and humble attitude and try to learn tips and things from people who ride and dedicate their lives to motorcycling. They know a lot.
RIDING IN SPAIN
If I were to visit you and we went riding for one short morning ride, where would you take me? If we were in Madrid, I would take you to the beautiful mountains nearby, going through the legendary motorcyclist place “La Cruz Verde”, then “La Granja de San Ildefonso” and a stop in Segovia for having a “cochinillo” (yummy piglet) for lunch and then head back to Madrid. [Route]
What’s the best part about riding in Spain? My grandfather always told me that interestingly enough Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland. It also has great weather. Those two things combined make it a great destination for motorcycling adventures. After living in Brazil and travelling through northern Africa, I also value something else: it’s pretty safe, which gives you freedom to travel and wander around on your own.
What are the top rides you would recommend? There are literally hundreds of rides to do. I would definitely recommend “Picos de Europa” and the Granada region where in a couple of hours you can go from steep, mountainous regions like “Las Alpujarras” to a tropical coast in the beach. For me, the best thing is that you can ride in almost any direction and you will find nice secondary roads, mountain regions and interesting historical villages. So you can easily adapt your trip to the time you have and the kind of adventure you are looking for.
What kind of food can riders expect to stop for while riding there? Gastronomy is a well-known characteristic of Spain. You can expect to find diverse cuisine as you move from one part of the country to another. An easy and fun way of trying new food is through “tapas and raciones”. You’ll be able to find some classic dishes though, like gazpacho (tomato soup), paella (kind of rice) or cocido (stew), almost everywhere.
How does the topography affect the kind of motorcycling you choose to do? As we have a lot of mountains which are not that high in altitude, good weather and other favorable conditions, Spain has many passionate motorcycle riders. I think that because of the topography and weather conditions, there are a lot of riders that love off-road riding. The Catalonia region is specially known for its trial and enduro riders. There are also many valleys and long highways and hence many riders that like speed and road bikes. There are an unusual high number of circuits like the ones in MotoGP: Jerez, Valencia, Catalonia, Aragon, and others like Jarama in Madrid, where groups of friends go on weekends and rent for some hours for some excitement.
What is the traffic like and how does it affect motorcycle riding? You can expect some traffic in the biggest cities and always have to be careful and know what is going on around you, but other than that generally people respect motorcyclists.
What are the best months for riding? My favorite period is the springtime as you have greener landscapes and beautiful yellow and purple flowers along the roads. But you can ride all year round! In winter you can find snow in some regions and probably have to keep away from the highest altitudes.
Is it safe to ride at night where you live?
Yes, it is perfectly safe.
Is motorcycle theft a problem?
For sure there are incidents, and you probably want a good lock if it is a expensive bike and it’s going to sleep in the street, but I had my little 125 Hyousung Karion sleeping in the street in the city center of Madrid for a couple of years and never had a problem. Little towns and villages are usually much safer than the cities.
Are motorcyclists discriminated against in any way? Not in a general way, but there are some things that can be improved. I think that there are some nonsense laws concerning motorcycling licenses that make it really hard for newcomers. Like you can drive any 125 cc bike with a regular car license but it is ridiculously hard and expensive to get the license for more powerful bikes. The risk does not go like that and anyone who has ever ridden a motorbike knows it. The law is not looking out for the best interests of the people.
There is also not a good law that solves how to divide the public countryside use between motorbike users and other users and seems like police officers are just simply told to go after off-road riders and bother them in any way possible. They have become a real pain in the ass.
How do the police treat motorcyclists? Other than the trouble concerning off-road riding (you can get a fine if you are seen off-track) I think they treat motorcyclists correctly and they are usually even nicer if you ask for information than if you were a car driver.
Do you have access to high quality motorcycling gear in your part of the world? Yes, we have lots of motorcycling gear stores and you can easily find outlets and good deals.
Is there a local motorcycling event that you try and attend regularly? Like in most western-culture countries, there are hundreds of these events. Now that I am living in Portugal and have tried some of these rallies and weekend events, I for sure want to get more involved in them.
Are any motorcycle related sports popular where you live and do women actively participate in them? Of course there are lots of people who love MotoGP and there is also lots of trial and enduro motocross races.
Recently I discovered a motorcycling kind of club (MotoXplorers) in Lisbon. They rent BMW motorbikes but they also frequently offer free seminars and sessions regarding motorcycling and support some rallies and tours. I was pleased to see that in their meetings there are always a couple of motorcyclist women.
How are women motorcycle riders treated? In these Mediterranean countries, if you are not riding a scooter it is usual to find surprised people all the time. Some times they give you thumbs up and help you when you need it, sometimes they honk and scare you in traffic or just want to stupidly race you. Since I usually wear my hair up in a ponytail so it doesn’t get tangled I don’t think most drivers even notice that I am a woman unless I’m stopped.
In general, I don’t think that we are consciously mistreated. I think though that we are involuntarily mistreated all the time, because we are just automatically put in a box in most people’s mind where it is just not a possibility that you are a motorcyclist. So for example, if you ask a question to a male motorcyclist or a mechanic, their first reaction is going to be to not listen to your question at all, and treat you as a little child and explain to you some basic stuff that wasn’t even what you asked for. Or for instance if a group is having an argument regarding motorcycling. Your opinion is just simply not going to be heard unless you have proven first in the mud, tracks or wherever that you’ve earned the right to have an opinion.
For professional people though, I’ve found they treat both genders more equally, because a person says two sentences and they just know if you are truly passionate for it or just the kind of person that is making stuff up.
Do female and male motorcyclists have the same amount of freedom to pursue motorcycling activities? No, especially when it comes to getting started and building your confidence. Which I think is essential for enjoying this activity and also to do it safely. I mean, my grandma still does not trust that I drive (even my car!) and always prefers a male driver, even if they just got their license! So I tell her that when driving with her I have to overcome two barriers: one is her lack of confidence in me, and secondly the driving itself. Men only have to do the second part.
I am aware that I was able to learn how to drive a motorcycle probably because there were no sons in my home. I feel blessed that I had the chance to learn as a child within my family but also know that I had to fight the rest of the way to achieve anything else in that world. I’ve been laughed at and told it was unfeminine more times than anyone told me: “You can do it”. I’ve even been told by family members that I won’t have kids if I keep riding my motorcycle! No one but my boyfriend ever told me that I could do it, and you have to overcome that because that’s just the way life is. But when you are in the mud, when you are headed for a turn in high speed, when you’re in a situation where you don’t even have time to think, it is extremely important that you believe in yourself, otherwise you will probably have an accident. That has been my greatest challenge as a woman compared to the male riders around me.